Book Review: Pershing: Commander of the Great War by John Perry (Four Stars)

Book Review: Pershing: Commander of the Great War by John Perry

Four Stars out of Five

“Winning wars [is] in the details.”

Today few people remember John J. Pershing. A century ago (actually 97 years ago) he was a hero. The first American to wear five star rank. Who was he? Where did he come from? What was he like? This biography explores all that without the hundreds of pages of trivia so many modern biographies include.

In 1917 American hadn’t fought a major war in over fifty years. (The Spanish-American War hardly qualified, though we stumbled through that one, too.) We had few officers nor enlisted with combat experience. We had swell a thirty thousand man army to over two million: recruit or draft them; organize, train and equip them; deploy them to Europe, feed, move, supply them bullets and bandages; resist French and English insistence that they be “amalgamated” into their armies, and beat the Germans. Pershing is largely responsible of our success.

And most of our success and failure in World War Two stemmed from lessons Pershing taught subordinates like Marshall, Eisenhower and Patton, which unfortunately the politicians of both parties refused to learn. If we’d followed his advice, we would have been more prepared in 1941.

He was an authentic leader. Frankly, he wasn’t a likeable person. He hadn’t planned on an Army career; he suffered personal and profession loss; he cared more about winning than being liked. He wasn’t loved by everyone, until after he’d done the seeming impossible, then everyone acted as if they’d loved him all along.

Lesson for today: Pershing pacified the Moros of Mindanao (the Philippines) in 1905 by getting to know them, moving among them, treating them fairly, and only as a last resort using force. And when he used force it was overwhelming and total. He was the reason the Moros welcomed MacArthur back in 1944.

Quibble: How could Pershing have graduated 30th in the 26-man West Point class of 1886?

“If you have a fall—mental, moral or physical—pick yourself up and start over again immediately. If you do, in the long run life won’t beat you.”